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Personal development is a subject I love to immerse myself in. Having read many personal development books and blogs over the years, I was excited to have the opportunity to read and review ‘Becoming Guise-Wise’ by Michael Waters. The premise of this book intrigued me, with its claims that by making one small change in ourselves, we could end world conflict and take our species to another level. You may be rolling your eyes at this as personal development books have a reputation for making grand claims that rarely get fulfilled. However, at first glance, this book seemed like it would have some substance and potential.
As well as ‘Becoming Guise-Wise’, Michael Waters kindly sent me another of his books, ‘The Element Dictionary of Personal Development’. This sounded like a fantastic reference book for all things related to personal development. I was excited to delve into both.
On first impression, both books look so professional and high quality. The covers are well-designed and the books feel well-made with glossy covers and thick paper. I could already tell they would look good on my bookshelf! But of course, the purpose of a book is not to sit on a bookshelf, but to be read. That’s exactly what I did, and this post is not just a book review but also my thoughts and comments on the concepts described in ‘Becoming Guise-Wise’.
Who is Michael Waters?
Here is Michael Waters’ author bio as printed in the front of the book, ‘Becoming Guise-Wise’:
Dr Michael Waters is a consultant, trainer, coach, author, conference speaker and, above all, an innovative and original thinker who has pioneered wholly new inter-disciplinary areas of study and practice. One of these, Surge Studies, was featured in his last book, The Power of Surge (Olympia, 2020) and on the surgestudies.org website.
Michael is also known as the “Decision Doctor” (a name bestowed on him by a national newspaper).
About ‘Becoming Guise-Wise’
As mentioned, the premise of this book is that we can make one simple change that has powerful potential to change the world and end small-scale and global conflicts. I’ll try to summarise the main points here, but of course, it is explained in much more detail in the book.
Michael Waters proposes that all conflict and division are a result of people and groups of people seeing other groups of people as different and separate from themselves. This is because nearly all of us have a ‘default setting’ of perceiving differences between ourselves and others before we perceive similarities.
If we could change our default setting to focus first on what is similar between ourselves and others, before noticing what is different, we would feel a lot more connected and compassionate towards others. How could this change the world? We would take into consideration the needs and well-being of everyone on the planet when making decisions. This could drastically change the decisions we make. If world leaders were operating from this default setting, the changes would be huge.
The term ‘guise-wise’ refers to seeing other people as ‘yourself in another guise’ or as ‘other versions of yourself’. This applies on an individual level and to groups of all different sizes.
An example given in the book is football supporters. At first glance, it might seem that different teams’ football supporters are very different – in direct opposition in fact. Actually, they share far more in common than not. They all love football and take part in similar activities around the game. The only thing different about them is that they support a different team. In this sense, all different groups of football supporters are versions of each other.
When you see other groups of people as versions of your own group (or individuals as versions of yourself) you’ll feel a sense of oneness with them and a genuine desire to help them. Whatever they are going through will no longer feel irrelevant and distant to you, because they are part of the same human family as you are.
But how can this ‘guise-wise capacity’ be achieved?
Michael Waters proposes a simple strategy. We must repeatedly ask ourselves what he calls ‘the obsessive question’. Which is: “What’s common?“. By asking this of ourselves and others in every relevant situation, we will gradually shift our default settings to see what’s common between ourselves and others before seeing differences. This strategy would be especially powerful in children, to establish that default setting in the first place. Therefore Michael would love to see schools and education authorities take this strategy on board.
Could this work?
It’s natural to feel sceptical of anyone claiming to put forward a simple solution that will solve all the world’s problems. I do think that the solution Michael Waters presents is logically sound and really could work the way he says it could.
I think the hardest part would be to actually get the word out. Michael suggests a few ways to spread the word. One way he mentioned is via bloggers – which is exactly what he has done by reaching out to me, and presumably other bloggers, to review his book. He also suggests based on research that the tipping point for establishing the guise-wise capacity as default may actually be quite a low percentage of the population.
Michael Waters explains that an obsessive question is a simple, direct question that when asked repeatedly, will inevitably achieve a certain end. As I mentioned before, Michael suggests repeatedly asking the question “What’s common?” to yourself and to others when appropriate, to bring about the guise-wise capacity.
He also suggests other obsessive questions that can achieve different purposes. The question, “So, what are you going to do about it?” is empowering, action-spurring and described in the book as ‘the antidote to helplessness’. This question would complement the question “What’s common” and intensify the positive effects.
Reading about the idea of obsessive questions got me thinking about what other obsessive questions I could ask myself to help on my own personal journey. Some ideas I had were:
- Am I using my time in the best possible way right now?
- How will this action contribute towards my goals?
- How can I be kind in this situation?
I can’t say whether any of these questions would have as powerful an effect as the questions suggested in the book, but I see ‘obsessive questioning’ as a good tool that could be put to use for many different purposes within personal and interpersonal development.
My experience so far with trying to be ‘guise-wise’
Since reading the book, I have been fully intending to ask myself the obsessive question, “What’s common?” whenever an opportunity arises. However, I’ve found that I don’t often remember to do so! I’m sure that appropriate opportunities have arisen in my life, but the question hasn’t come to my awareness at the time.
I don’t think this is a problem with the concept itself, but it’s a matter of building a new habit. It’s quite possible that the hardest part of becoming ‘guise-wise’ is getting started – building the habit of asking the obsessive question in the first place. It would be all too easy to have good intentions but completely forget to ask the question, and then forget about the whole thing in a matter of weeks.
To combat this, I have written the question “What’s common?” on a post-it note and stuck it on the wall in front of my desk where I will see it multiple times a day. If you are hoping to build this habit too, I recommend doing the same. This will help the question stay fresh in your mind, and hopefully, over time, it will automatically come to mind in the relevant kinds of situations.
Despite not having asked the obsessive question much, I think the book has had an impact generally on my social interactions. I have found myself remembering that people have a lot more in common with me than it might seem. This has made my social interactions more comfortable and rewarding.
When reading ‘guise-wise’, I found myself thinking that the guise-wise mindset/concept would really help with mental health. This would be a small-scale effect on individuals in addition to the ripple effects it would have to help the whole world.
I have struggled in the past with anxiety, and although I am doing much better now, I still have occasional episodes. This almost always revolves around people and social situations. By seeing first and foremost what’s in common between myself and others, people will seem more comforting and ‘like me’ rather than scary or threatening, and I am less likely to feel anxious around them. I imagine that a sense of commonness with others would help with other mental health issues such as depression too.
The question “So, what are you going to do about it?” could also benefit mental health by empowering people to take action rather than staying stuck.
The fact that the guise-wise perspective can benefit people on an individual level is a good incentive for people to try it. Some people don’t currently care much about or relate to global problems, or they simply have enough of their own problems to deal with. These people wouldn’t likely make the effort to change for altruistic reasons, but even they might be persuaded to try it for personal benefit. Greater compassion for and connection to others would surely flow from that too.
Comparison to permaculture
I have a patchy knowledge but a great interest in permaculture, one definition of which is “the development of agricultural ecosystems intended to be sustainable and self-sufficient”. Permaculture goes beyond just being a ‘gardening thing’ and also extends to people and community, which is the key and relevant point here. It’s all about things being interlinked and connected – nature, plants, weather, animals, landscaping systems and people all working together in harmony.
When I first discovered permaculture, I remember thinking, “Wow, this could really solve all of the world’s problems”. When Michael Waters claimed the same in his book, it reminded me of this and I wondered if there is a link to be made between permaculture and the idea of being ‘Guise-Wise’. Both are all about connection. They are two completely different concepts, but both point to the fact that connection and togetherness are the keys to solving the world’s problems.
Permaculture could be seen as an expression of living in a guise-wise way. The change must come from within (by changing our default setting) but I think that having achieved that change, a permaculture lifestyle would be the kind of lifestyle that might naturally stem from this mindset.
Although anyone can do permaculture, (you don’t have to have a lot of money or even own land to put its principles into action), guise-wise is perhaps more accessible in the sense that it only requires one single simple action (which, being in your mind you don’t even need resources or preparation for), whereas permaculture involves a lot more learning, planning and physical action.
What is ‘Becoming Guise-Wise’ like to read?
The book is written in a fairly formal and scholarly way, as opposed to being chatty. This means it requires more concentration to read, yet it comes across as professional and credible. A chattier, more informal approach might be more appealing and accessible to the masses, however, I also think that the idea of ‘becoming guise-wise’ is more likely to spread through the actions of those few who have read it and put it into practice, rather than from everybody reading it themselves.
There is lots of repetition in the book, but as Michael Waters states in the foreword, this is appropriate for this kind of book – repetition helps the concepts sink in. That is in fact analogous to the concept itself!
There are a few spelling and grammatical errors in this book but I’m sure they will be corrected in future editions/print runs.
The Element Dictionary of Personal Development
As mentioned, I also received another book by Michael Waters: ‘The Element Dictionary of Personal Development’. This is an A-Z of personal development terms, theories and concepts, and unlike a standard dictionary, it goes into significant detail on each entry.
I haven’t read this cover to cover, as it is more of a reference book. From flicking through it, I have seen terms I am familiar with and others that are new to me or that I hadn’t fully understood before. I recognise some of the terms and concepts from Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, including ABC Theory and cognitive distortions.
I didn’t find myself needing to look up terms from ‘Becoming Guise-Wise’ in this dictionary, but it will come in so useful if I encounter terms I am unfamiliar with when reading other personal development books. It is the kind of dictionary that I could literally read from cover to cover too, to widen my general knowledge of personal development. The only drawback is that it was written a while ago now, in 1996, so it may omit some more modern or newly coined terms.
This dictionary actually gets a mention within ‘Becoming Guise-Wise’, when Michael Waters states that he wouldn’t write this dictionary today! This is because he believes that interpersonal development, i.e. developing together with others, is more important than developing our separate selves. You could therefore more accurately describe ‘Becoming Guise-Wise’ as an interpersonal development book.
Would I recommend ‘Becoming Guise-Wise’?
I think ‘Becoming Guise-Wise’ is an excellent addition to any personal (or indeed interpersonal) development bookshelf and I hope it will lead the way for more books on the same topic. ‘The Element Dictionary of Personal Development’ is also a valuable resource that I would recommend.
I am on board with Michael Waters’ goal to spread the ideas in ‘Becoming Guise-Wise’ far and wide. Therefore if you ask whether I think you should read this book, my answer would be yes! Even if you don’t go and buy the book, I would challenge you to try asking “What’s common?” in your day-to-day encounters with others.
You can purchase both of these books on Amazon in paperback versions, and ‘Becoming Guise-Wise’ is also available in Kindle format.
Michael Waters has written several other books so I will be adding them to my ‘to read’ list. I also look forward to seeing any future publications of his, whether expanding on the topic of ‘guise-wise’ or on any other interpersonal development topics.